Nebraska Football: Who Is Replacing Every Former Husker Taken in the 2015 NFL Draft?

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans watching the NFL draft had to wait until the second day to see the first Cornhusker alum go off the board. Ameer Abdullah went in the second round to the Lions, Randy Gregory went (finally) in the second round to the Cowboys, and Kenny Bell went in the fifth round to the Buccaneers.

So who will take their place? Which players will step up and replace the NFL-level production provided by Abdullah, Gregory, and Bell last season? With the help of a projected depth chart from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, here’s at least some potential replacements.

Terrell Newby for Ameer Abdullah

This is probably a little misleading. Newby looks to be in prime position to get the first crack at taking the lead I-back role for Nebraska in 2015. But McKewon thinks (and with good reason) that Newby will be at least the nominal starter net season.

That may not mean as much with Nebraska’s stable of backs (and with a new head coach and offensive philosophy). And there’s no doubt that none of Nebraska’s I-backs will be focus of NU’s offense and a team leader the way Abdullah was last year.

But if there’s anyone that will fill the Ameer-shaped hole for Nebraska next year, Newby looks like the man to get the first shot at it.

Marcus Newby for Randy Gregory

OK, hear me out. I know Newby is a linebacker, and isn’t even guaranteed a starting job next year. But Gregory was always undersized for a defensive end, making up for his lack of size with freakish athletic ability.

What Gregory’s real talent was for the Blackshirts was rushing the passer. In both 2013 and 2014 (according to CFBStats.com), Gregory led Nebraska in sacks. Newby had one sack in eight appearances. More importantly, though, his appearances were mainly limited to passing situations where his role was to rush the passer.

Sure, Gregory was an every-down defensive lineman at the collegiate level, not just a pass-rush specialist. But where Gregory will be most missed by Nebraska is his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Don’t be surprised to see Newby fill that role next year, if he doesn’t beat David Santos out for the weakside linebacker job altogether.

Jamal Turner for Kenny Bell

Yes, De’Mornay Pierson-El is likely to be Nebraska’s most dangerous weapon at receiver. But Bell provided more than just a deep threat. He was also provided leadership and toughness. And while Pierson-El’s talent is undeniable, he hasn’t even played a full year at receiver.

Turner, on the other hand, will be starting his sixth year in the program after receiving a medical hardship. And with the injuries he has fought through, Turner has demonstrated a toughness and tenacity which the rest of the receiving corps can look to and emulate.

Admittedly, Turner doesn’t have Bell’s amazing hair. But Turner, more than anyone else on the roster, can replace Bell’s combination of playmaking speed and senior leadership.

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Nebraska Football: NFL Draft Projections for Every Former Cornhusker

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

On Thursday, the 2015 NFL Draft will begin, and Nebraska fans will be keeping an eye out to see where former Cornhuskers land. Ever since the Bill Callahan era, Nebraska has touted the success of its alumni in the NFL, and there are at least three players who look likely to join their ranks.

Lance Zierlein and Chad Reuter at NFL.com put together a seven-round mock draft showing where each player could land. While mock drafts are notoriously unreliable in terms of their predictive accuracy, they are interesting as a starting point to think about how players could fill needs on a certain team. So an exercise like the one on NFL.com is useful as a discussion point.

With that caveat in place, let’s take a look at where this year’s crop of ex-Cornhuskers might land on Sundays.

Randy Gregory

New Orleans Saints (first round, no. 13 overall)

After the regular season, Gregory was considered by some to be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. But a positive marijuana test at the NFL Combine has dropped perception of him out of the top ten, in large part due to the irresponsibility of allowing himself to have the drug in his system when he knew he was going to be tested.

But while that will likely cost Gregory a healthy sum in terms of his rookie contract, it also pushes him down the board and likely to a better team. The Saints are a team re-tooling after a disastrous 7-9 season which kept them out of the playoffs (even in the comically-inept NFC South, which was won by a 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers).

In this offseason, the Saints traded their most explosive offensive weapon in tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for picks and a Pro Bowl caliber center in Max Unger. It may be a signal that the Saints are moving towards more of a focus on defense and running the ball. Given that the Saints were no. 25 in the NFL last year in sacks, a pass-rushing specialist would fill a big need.

And if Gregory’s indiscretion at the Combine drops a top-five level talent to New Orleans at 13, it makes a lot of sense for the Saints to jump on him there.

Ameer Abdullah

Detroit Lions (third round, no. 88 overall)

Well, if nothing else, Nebraska fans could keep the Lions as their adopted NFL team, trading their Ndamukong Suh shirts (who went to the Miami Dolphins in free agency this offseason) for Abdullah ones.

Upgrading at running back makes a lot of sense for the Lions, especially as their defense will of necessity take a hit after losing Suh. With Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at wideout, the Lions already have some effective offensive weapons. But their only rostered running backs at this point are Joique Bell, Theo Riddick, and George Wynn. There is a huge opportunity for a running back to earn playing time (at the very least in a committee with Bell), one that Abdullah would be well-poised to exploit.

Kenny Bell

Buffalo Bills (fifth round, no. 155 overall)

Bell to Buffalo is an intriguing prospect. Given his injury history and lack of size, a fifth-round grade is probably fair. And yet, throughout his career at Nebraska, fans saw his speed, route-running, and hands on display, as well as his toughness and leadership.

Going to Buffalo would put him on the field with a number of other exciting offensive weapons, such as Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy. If Bell can make the team as a third or fourth wideout, he could have the opportunity to exploit matchups against linebackers or safeties, with the other team’s best cover corners on Watkins and Harvin.

Of course, he would also have guys like Matt Cassel and E.J. Manuel throwing him the ball, which right now is the biggest limiting factor in the Bills’ offensive future. Still, given what the Bills look to be building on offense, Bell makes a lot of sense in Buffalo.

Free Agents

According to CBS Sports, here are the other Nebraska players who have a shot at earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.

Player Position Positional Rank
Trevor Roach ILB 21
Zaire Anderson OLB 44
Josh Mitchell CB 64
Corey Cooper SS 28
Jake Cotton OG 51

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Redshirt Freshmen for the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have long memories, long enough to remember the recruiting hype for the freshmen who redshirted last year and have extended their careers in Lincoln as a result. Of course, there is no real data available to make any kind of informed analysis of where the redshirt freshmen stand.

Having said that, we do have recruiting rankings available, to give at least some idea of a player’s potential. We can also look at the opportunities available to the players, either from roster attrition, a new coaching staff, or both, and make some informed projections about how these players may fit in next season.

All ratings from 247 Sports.

No. 5: Mick Stoltenberg (DT)

Stoltenberg was a three-star recruit (.8296 composite) coming out of high school, and plays a position that should see a lot of competition prior to the 2015 season. With Randy Gregory declaring for the NFL draft, Greg McMullen looks to be the only sure-fire starter returning for Nebraska.

Stoltenberg will be competing with Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, and A.J. Natter, all who saw playing time last season.

No. 4: Freedom Akinmoladun (TE)

Let’s agree at the start that guessing what new head coach Mike Riley’s offense will look like in 2015 is a fool’s errand. Having said that, given Riley’s history and the fact that his new offensive coordinator is a quarterback coach, it’s a fair conclusion that Nebraska will lean more on the passing game than it did under Bo Pelini.

And if we take past as prologue, we see that the tight end in Oregon State’s offense in the last three years has been either third or fourth in receptions. Compare that to Nebraska’s offense over the same time period, where the tight end has only been fourth one year (Kyler Reed in 2012) and sixth every other year.

In 2015, Nebraska will have a dangerous receiving threat at tight end returning in Cethan Carter. But Akinmoladun looks to be cut from the same mold as Carter, and should have a chance to shine.

No. 3: A.J. Bush (QB)

Bush might be the biggest wild card of all Nebraska’s redshirt freshman. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Nebraska’s offense is going to look like next year, so it’s hard to guess what skill set the next NU quarterback will need. Tommy Armstrong has off-the-chart intangibles and nearly two years of starting experience under his belt. Johnny Stanton was recruited by Riley at Oregon State, so there’s no question Riley likes what Stanton has to offer.

And yet Bush’s name keeps coming up, even over Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman quarterback Zack Darlington. During preparation for this year’s Holiday Bowl, interim head coach Barney Cotton called Bush “an intriguing guy” (according to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star).

With a new coaching staff coming in, all the quarterbacks will be starting with a clean slate. That may give this “intriguing guy” a chance to make an impression and work his way up the depth chart next season.

No. 2: Mikale Wilbon (RB)

The graduation of Ameer Abdullah leaves a huge hole at Nebraska’s I-back position. Returners Imani Cross and Terrell Newby certainly have the advantage of game experience. But that experience has also shown some of the weaknesses in both of their games.

Adam Taylor, if he is able to bounce back from an injury that cost him the 2014 season, looks to provide a middle-ground in skill sets between a bruiser like Cross and a scatback like Newby. A three-star prospect (.8822 composite), Wilbon will have the chance to impress the new coaching staff and make an immediate impact in 2015.

No. 1: Tanner Farmer (OL)

In some ways, picking the redshirt offensive lineman for this list was a challenge, as Nick Gates and Jerald Foster will be in the mix as well. But Farmer’s recruiting pedigree (four-star, .9021 composite) along with his size (six-foot-four, 310 pounds) give him the slight nod in this contest.

Farmer’s familiarity at guard should help, as Nebraska is returning both starting tackles for 2014. But the depth of talent and competition for playing time should be a good problem for new Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

Nebraska Football: 5 Takeaways From The Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans saw the Bo Pelini tenure in microcosm while watching NU’s 45-42 loss to USC in the Holiday Bowl. Ugly offensive performances. Head-scratching playcalling decisions. A defense gouged by a power rushing attack. A furious comeback fueled by heart that came achingly close to success.

And, of course, a fourth loss to a season.

Yes, the next time Nebraska takes the field there will be a new coaching staff in place. But there are still things that can be learned from Nebraska’s performance going forward.

Tommy Armstrong’s Job Isn’t Secure

Armstrong’s stats for the Holiday Bowl were impressive. He was 32-51 (!) for 382 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, with 41 yards rushing and another touchdown to boot. But those statistics might be a little misleading.

In the first half, USC defenders dropped no less than four sure-fire interceptions. If those picks are made—heck, if even half of those picks are made—the Trojans would have had the opportunity to bury Nebraska in the first half and put a very different shine on the game.

In late-game situations needing a comeback (Michigan State, Iowa, USC), Armstrong has been at his best. But he’s also been hopelessly, dangerously erratic and inaccurate early in games.  Armstrong has earned his season-long 53.3 completion percentage, which is not going to be good enough to win conference titles.

This isn’t to say that Armstrong won’t be the starter. His intangibles are off the charts, and Armstrong does have the experience of a year-and-a-half of starting games. But given the flaws in Armstrong’s game—coupled with the fact that his backup in Johnny Stanton was heavily recruited by incoming head coach Mike Riley when he was at Oregon State—suggest that Armstrong’s game will have to improve if he wants to keep the starting job in 2015.

Nebraska Has The Talent To Hang With USC

Sure, Nebraska was facing a USC squad still feeling the effect of a scholarship limit, and was able to wear the Trojans down in the fourth quarter as a result. But athlete-for-athlete, Nebraska was able to stay with USC throughout the game. The game was not a mismatch, which was reflected in the exciting, down-to-the-wire finale.

Incoming coach Mike Riley has some holes to fill, to be sure. But the cupboard in Lincoln is far from bare.

The Offensive Line Needs Work

It was certainly jarring to see Nebraska throw the ball 51 (!) times against USC in the Holiday Bowl. But given how beat up Nebraska’s offensive line was, the run/pass ratio starts to make a little more sense. Nebraska was down to its third-string center (which, unfortunately, was likely part of yet another ball-to-the-facemask incident at the worst possible time), and the struggles on the offensive line were a big part of why Nebraska’s rushing attack struggled to gain traction.

With an influx of young talent (headlined by guard Tanner Farmer), Nebraska’s offensive line could look radically different in 2015. And with Ameer Abdullah’s graduation, it will have to perform radically better for Nebraska’s offense to have a chance.

De’Mornay Pierson-El Will Be Next Year’s Offensive Star

True freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El made a name for himself on special teams this year, but struggled to make an impact on offense. Pierson-El never had more than four catches in a game prior to the Holiday Bowl, and his fumble against Minnesota did display the dangers of inserting a true freshman into the starting lineup.

Against USC, though, Pierson-El had eight receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown. It was Pierson-El, not Ameer Abdullah, whose number was called on a critical fourth down conversion attempt late in the game. It’s hard to know what Nebraska’s offense will look like next year, with a new coaching staff, uncertainty at quarterback, and the return of Jamal Turner.

But it seems likely that Pierson-El will be one of the primary offensive weapons for Nebraska next season.

The Stormtroopers Are Here To Stay

Surrender whites, they’ve been called. The all-white look has been castigated by traditionalists and believers in superstition as a fashion travesty for Nebraska.

Well, get used to it. Nebraska has gone stormtrooper (white shirt, white pants) three times this season. Even with a new coaching staff, look for this development from the 2014 season to stick around.

Nebraska Football: Burning Questions for the Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans may have forgotten a bit about the upcoming Holiday Bowl amidst all of the drama, but there are a number of questions to be answered that will tell how NU will perform this post-season. After the firing of Bo Pelini, more questions that normal surround Nebraska as it prepares for the bowl. Here are three of the biggest ones that will help define Nebraska’s performance in San Diego.

What Will Nebraska’s Motivation Be?

Bowl games are always tricky to forecast because of the motivation question. How hard will a group of college kids, nearly a month removed from the regular season and with the holidays in between, really want to work? Will one team be more willing to pay the price in preparation, and therefore have more chance to be successful?

That’s for any bowl game. Add on top of that a popular head coach being fired. Add on top of that the fired coach being 9-3. And add on top of that a farewell speech from the fired 9-3 coach that further stoked the “us-versus-them” mentality that was one of the defining traits of said fired 9-3 coach’s career.

You could imagine almost anything in terms of how Nebraska will show up for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska could be razor-sharp and wanting to put on the game of its life in honor and support of Bo Pelini and his staff. Nebraska could be completely flat and listless, feeling like their seasons were stolen with Pelini’s firing. Nebraska could come out like wild horses, riding an emotional high, but falling apart at the first sign of trouble.

Each of those scenarios are plausible. Indeed, over the course of Pelini’s career, we’ve seen each of those Nebraska teams take the field. So finding out what Nebraska team comes out of the locker room will be one of the biggest questions to answer in finding out how the Holiday Bowl will play out.

What Will The Game Plan Be?

While Pelini is getting comfortable in Youngstown, the rest of his staff will be preparing Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl. That means that defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be in full charge of the Blackshirts, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be able to call the game he wants.

Throw in a month to prepare—and coaches who will be looking to make a good impression for future employers—and Nebraska could look fairly drastically different than it has at any point this year. How effective that will be, of course, will be anyone’s guess.

How Healthy Will Nebraska Be?

Without the coaching change, this one might have been the biggest question to answer coming into the Holiday Bowl. Ameer Abdullah’s status will be the biggest question, of course, as it was his injury during the Purdue game that really changed the course of Nebraska’s season. But Kenny Bell has struggled with injuries all season, as have a number of other Nebraska stars.

With a month to heal, Nebraska will be as healthy as it has been since the start of the season. That will make a significant difference, particularly given the talent level of an opposing team like USC.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 10 Best Cornhuskers from the 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans can finally take a breath and look back at the 2014 season, taking stock of who the Cornhuskers’ best players were last year. A coaching change, followed with an out-of-left-field hire, can make fans ready to turn the page pretty quickly to 2015 and the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.

But it’s far too soon for that. As Nebraska prepares for its bowl game against USC, let’s take a look back at who the ten best players were for NU in 2014.

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Of all the players on the roster, Armstrong is probably the hardest to rate. His numbers still aren’t fantastic—a 51.7 percent completion rate and a 19/11 touchdown-to-interception ratio are not going to win any conference titles.

But Armstrong also showed his leadership throughout the season, coming back from injury against Michigan State and holding the team together offensively after the injury to Ameer Abdullah. His toughness and intangibles have to be credited, even if his statistical deliverables have fallen short this year.

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

Westerkamp had a number of games where he was simply a non-factor, although much of that was due to the overall struggles of Nebraska’s offense. But Westerkamp was Nebraska’s most reliable receiver throughout the season, leading the team in receptions and second in yards per game.

Oh, and he also had a catch that was pretty good.

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

Nebraska’s strength in 2014 was certainly its defensive line, and a big part of that was the performance of Valentine. His size (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) makes him a force in the middle, and his development in terms of handing offensive linemen (and therefore freeing up linebackers to make plays) and in making tackles (39 overall) made him a big cog in Nebraska’s defensive performance.

No. 7: Kenny Bell

When Bell is healthy, he was Nebraska’s most dangerous down-field threat. His absence was certainly felt in East Lansing, as Nebraska’s offense evaporated after Bell’s injury removed any deep play threat. Conversely, Bell put Nebraska on his back in Iowa City, making play after play before catching the game winner in overtime.

It will be quite a start for Nebraska fans not to see no. 80 lining up on the outside next season (or see the ‘fro on the sidelines).

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

Going into the 2014 season, many assumed that Nebraska would have a solid performer at safety in Corey Cooper, with Gerry and LeRoy Alexander fighting for the alternate safety spot. Well, it turns out that Nebraska did have a solid performer at safety—Gerry.

After leading the team in interceptions and being second in tackles, an argument could be made that Gerry was Nebraska’s defensive MVP. At the very least, he is one of the shining lights for the Blackshirts coming into 2015.

No. 5: Maliek Collins

While Vincent Valentine made steps in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line stopping things up, Collins got things going in opposing backfields. Finishing the season second in sacks, Collins became a disruptive force up the middle in the second half of the season. With teams focused on slowing down Nebraska’s defensive ends (particularly Randy Gregory), Collins’ ability to get penetration up the middle made a huge difference in NU’s defensive performances.

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

In general, Nebraska’s linebackers were a disappointment. While NU has a wealth of young talent at linebacker, that talent never really developed or matured to a point where it could effectively contribute.

The one exception to that rule was Anderson, who led the team in tackles with 95 total. Throughout the season, Anderson made crucial stops and provided a measure of consistency in the middle of Nebraska’s defense that was sorely needed.

No. 3: Randy Gregory

It might be a measure of Gregory’s greatness that it seemed like his season wasn’t the tour de force we had anticipated, even though he led the team in sacks, was third in tackles for loss, and sixth in tackles overall.

Gregory’s speed and length was a disruptive force for Nebraska’s defense throughout the 2014 season. Assuming Gregory does not return for his senior season, the Blackshirts will have some big shoes to fill next year.

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

How many games can a punt returner affect? Against Michigan State, Pierson-El’s return gave Nebraska a fighting chance after being dominated most of the game. Against Northwestern, the fear of Pierson-El gave Nebraska such good field position that NU was able to wear the Wildcats down. And against Iowa, a game that looked to be slipping away was turned by two long punt returns keying Nebraska’s comeback.

Pierson-El worked his way into the starting lineup as a wide receiver, although he was curiously absent from the offensive game plans after Ameer Abdullah’s injury. Regardless, though, Nebraska’s clear breakout star of 2014 should provide fans with a lot to look forward to next season.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

Nebraska’s season turned on a botched snap early in the game against Purdue. In diving for the loose ball, Abdullah was hurt and was never the same. Nebraska’s offense never recovered, and its offensive ineptitude helped fuel Wisconsin’s mauling of the Blackshirts, as well as Minnesota’s bare-knuckle victory in Lincoln.

Contrast that with Nebraska’s 41-31 win against Miami, where Abdullah ran like a man possessed, notching 229 yards and two touchdowns in NU’s most impressive and complete performance of the season.

Even more than Rex Burkhead’s injury in 2012, Abdullah’s loss at the end of 2014 presents a painful “what if” moment for Nebraska fans wondering how the season would have transpired with a healthy Abdullah in the backfield.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Pro Prospects on the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans, still smarting from seeing Melvin Gordon score again (and again, and again) on the Blackshirts, are looking for anything to distract them from Saturday’s debacle. One exercise is to take a look at Nebraska’s roster and think about who the best NFL prospects are in scarlet and cream.

Judging NFL prospects has some subjectivity to it, of course, particularly when you look at younger kids who have not had an opportunity to see the field. Sometimes experience and what you have seen on film can rule the day, while other times raw potential can make a player an exciting prospect.

So, trying to balance all of those considerations, here are Nebraska’s five best pro prospects.

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

No. 5: Kenny Bell (WR, senior)

Even as the school’s record-holder for touchdown receptions, Bell has been far from a dominant force in Nebraska’s offense this year. Much of that, however, stems from the run-heavy nature of Nebraska’s offensive scheme combined with quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s inefficiencies (which is the nicest possible way to say it) as a passer.

At the next level, though, Bell has the speed and hands to get drafted. He is currently projected as a fifth-round selection in next year’s draft. His desire and competitiveness—demonstrated by his ferocious devotion to blocking, if nothing else—should help him stick on an NFL roster next season.

No. 4: Vincent Valentine (DT, sophomore)

Valentine’s status on this list is a little bit of a projection, but there is plenty on which to base that speculation. For starters, his size (six-foot-two, 320 pounds) give him an idea frame as a run-stuffing defensive tackle. And this year, in his first full season as a starter, Valentine’s talent and athleticism have started to show through.

Placing him this high on the list, of course, is having faith that his skill level will continue to increase until the 2017 NFL Draft. But given his physical makeup and the improvement we’ve seen thus far, it’s a leap worth taking.

No. 3: Greg Hart (TE, redshirt freshman)

If Valentine’s inclusion on this list is a leap of faith, then including Hart on the list is a blindfolded jump off of a bridge. But there are reasons why such a jump might be worth it.

First of all, a big pass-catching tight end can be a game-changer for an NFL offense. Players like Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots and Jimmy Graham for the Saints have demonstrated how those types of players (and the matchup nightmares they create for opposing defenses) can change the entire construct of an offense.

Yes, Nebraska already has one of those on its roster in Cethan Carter. And Carter is certainly a talent, although injuries, offensive design, and poor quarterback performance have limited his contributions.

But Hart is an inch taller, and has a 40-yard-dash time almost a full tenth of a second faster than Carter. Obviously, we haven’t seen Hart on the field much. But we’ve seen precious little of Carter (much to the chagrin of Nebraska fans), so there’s a lot of speculation as to both players as to what they will look like as finished products.

So in guessing between the two, I’m going to lean on the player with the better measurables.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah (IB, senior)

Does it seem that long ago when Abdullah was considered a Heisman candidate and looked to be establishing something special in his senior campaign? After an injury against Purdue, combined with Nebraska’s humiliation at the hands of Wisconsin, Abdullah’s performances seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

But Abdullah is still a remarkable talent, with balance, speed, and deceptive power combined with a low center of gravity that should make him an interesting prospect at the next level. Currently viewed as a second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Abdullah should hear his name called on the draft’s second day and factor heavily into an NFL squad’s future plans.

No. 1: Randy Gregory (DE, junior)

One of the very few silver linings of Nebraska’s evisceration at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday was the fleeting thought that it looked so bad it might convince Gregory to stick around for his senior campaign. After all, the wishful thinking goes, the defense looked so bad that it might hurt Gregory’s stock with NFL clubs.

Fat chance. Not only is Gregory a first-round projections, many analysts see him going in the first few picks of the draft. Given his combination of size, speed, length, and instinct, it’s not hard to see how he draws comparisons to Jadaveon Clowney and Javon Kearse (according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com). Gregory looks to be the highest-picked Nebraska player since Ndamukong Suh went no. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions in 2010.

Which makes Saturday’s defensive embarrassment against Wisconsin all the sadder for Nebraska fans, as it likely is a waste of Gregory’s remarkable talents in scarlet and cream.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Top 5 Surprises for the Huskers This Year

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had an idea of what to expect coming into the 2014 season, but have received a few surprises along the way. As with any season, unexpected twists and turns have popped up, changing expectations from where they were in the summer.

Here are five of the biggest surprises Nebraska fans have seen as the 2014 season has unfolded.

No. 5 – Gregory’s Return?

Last week, Nebraska fans were buzzing at the possibility of defensive end Randy Gregory returning for his senior season in 2015. Fueled by comments from head coach Bo Pelini that “we’re not going to lose any of them” (referring to the defensive line, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star), Nebraska fans had a glimmer of hope to see Gregory next year.

After all, many outlets (such as CBS Sports’ Rob Rang) have Gregory as a top-five pick overall in next year’s NFL draft. While Pelini later said he wasn’t implying he knew anything about Gregory’s return next season (according to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), the seed was at least planted that Nebraska might get another year out of the phenomenal defensive talent of Gregory.

No. 4 – Tommy’s Consistency, In A Bad Way

In many ways, quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers don’t look all that different in 2014 than they did in 2013. Take a look:

Completion % TD INT Yards/Att Rating
2013 51.9 9 8 7.4 124.31
2014 53.0 13 8 7.9 131.45

 

While Armstrong has played in nine games this year, the same number as in 2013, it’s hard to make a straight comparison of his statistics. Many times last year, Armstrong played only part of a game, being spelled by Ron Kellogg. This year, the job has been almost exclusively Armstrong’s.

Going into his nineteenth game, it’s not unreasonable to have expected improvement in Armstrong’s performance at quarterback.

No. 3 – Kicking Conundrum

As observed long ago by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Nebraska has been “Kicker U” recently, producing an inordinate amount of accurate and reliable placekickers. That history has spoiled Nebraska fans a little, leading them to think field goals in college football are near automatic.

Not this year. True freshman Drew Brown is 9-14 in field goal attempts—fairly average nationwide, but perfectly dreadful based on Nebraska’s recent high standards. And while Brown’s (relative) struggles have yet to cost Nebraska a game, seeing NU with anything less than a stellar kicking game is a little jarring.

No. 2 – Failure to Launch

Sure, Ameer Abdullah has been fantastic (unless the opponent was an M-State, be it Michigan or McNeese). But much was expected of the other I-backs in the stable, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.

While both have a yards/carry average that is respectable (5.19 for Cross, 4.67 for Newby), neither of them have really been able to make a splash and grab the kind of attention Nebraska fans had hoped for. Certainly, in comparison to Abdullah at his best, most running backs will struggle.

But as Nebraska fans saw with the offensive struggles against Purdue in Abdullah’s absence, it’s not unfair to say that the contributions of Cross and Newby at this stage are a little underwhelming.

No. 1 – A Star is Born

There’s little doubt that freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El has been the best surprise Nebraska has found this year. Almost single-handedly, Pierson-El has turned a weakness into a strength in the punt return game. He’s beginning to be worked into the offense as well, looking as if he has claimed the starting third wide receiver position.

And if Abdullah is going to be limited against Wisconsin, Pierson-El may provide a crucial playmaker and weapon, forcing Wisconsin to respect the deep part of the field and opening running lanes for Armstrong, Cross, and Newby.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans well remember the Huskers’ last trip to Madison, which resulted in a 48-17 shellacking at the hands of the Badgers. So as they prepare for the return trip (and with echoes of Wisconsin’s 70-31 humiliation of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championships still ringing in their ears), Nebraska fans will be looking for how NU can win on Saturday and stay on track for a return trip to Indianapolis.

Here are three X-factors fans should  be looking for to key a Nebraska victory on Saturday.

Ameer Abdullah

According to Steven Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said that he “anticipates” I-back Ameer Abdullah to play against Wisconsin, but said that he did not practice with the team during the week. That’s far less definitive than Pelini was earlier, when he said he anticipated Abdullah to be close to 100 percent for the Wisconsin game.

So what does that mean? The likelihood is that Abdullah is going to be limited by the knee injury that kept him out of the game against Purdue two weeks ago. How limited? That’s the big question. If he is significantly limited, then we saw a glimpse of what Nebraska’s offense looks like sans Abdullah.

If he is able to provide something close to full fitness, though (or if Pelini is playing games with Wisconsin head coach Gary Anderson), then Abdullah has the chance to be the difference in the game on Saturday.

Cethan Carter

Pelini has been optimistic that tight end Cethan Carter would be back for the Wisconsin game, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star. Even though his contributions offensively have been sparse (two catches for 25 yards and one touchdown), Carter’s presence provides Nebraska with a downfield threat that no other tight end on the roster can give.

Carter’s absence (along with the injury to Kenny Bell early in the first quarter) may have been a big part of Nebraska’s offensive struggles against Michigan State. If Carter is back, Nebraska may have an unexpected weapon added to its arsenal as it travels to Madison.

Tim Beck

Against Purdue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he made the same mistake he made against Michigan State by overloading and over-complicating the offensive game plan. Nebraska’s offense has demonstrated the ability to be very effective against elite-level athletes, putting up 41 points and 456 yards against Miami.

Wisconsin’s defense is no. 5 nationally in rush defense and no. 3 nationally in pass defense. If Nebraska is going to beat the Badgers in Madison, Beck’s game plan and preparation will have to be top notch to get NU over the hump and stay on top of the B1G West.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Five Things For the Cornhuskers To Improve During the Bye Week

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans endured (that’s really the correct term for it) a sloppy 35-14 victory over Purdue to see NU head into its second bye week at 8-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play. But with the meat of its conference schedule ahead of it, how Nebraska performs in the final three games of the regular season will determine if NU breaks out of its four-loss rut and makes a run at a conference championship.

So what has to happen in this bye week to get Nebraska ready for its final gauntlet? Here are five things the Cornhuskers should be looking to improve.

Ameer Abdullah’s Knee

It’s not exactly rocket science to diagnose that a healthy Ameer Abdullah would do wonders for Nebraska’s chances against a suddenly-resurgent Wisconsin. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Abdullah had a mild knee sprain and head coach Bo Pelini is “optimistic” about his return for Wisconsin.

Nebraska fans should hope his optimism is well founded. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are nice replacement options, but neither is the kind of game-changer a healthy Abdullah is when on the field. And with Wisconsin in the last few weeks looking like the Badger crew we thought we would see at the start of the season, Nebraska might need that game-changer to escape Madison with a win.

Drew Brown’s Foot

True freshman Drew Brown missed a makeable field goal in each of Nebraska’s last three games, putting him at a less-than-stellar 9-of-14 in field goals for the season. In each of the contests, the misses ended up making no difference in the outcome. But that doesn’t mean the time won’t come this year where Nebraska’s hopes for a conference title will rest on a kicker’s foot.

It’s difficult to replicate game conditions and game pressures in a bye week, of course. But Nebraska will certainly go into this off week hoping to find some confidence in its placekicking game.

Tommy Armstrong’s Rapport

When you see a quarterback throw a horrific interception—or two—it’s easy to point the finger at him and ask what in the world he is seeing. But many times, a throw is made before a receiver makes a cut or a move. If the quarterback and receiver are thinking two different things—in other words, if the receiver zags when the quarterback expects him to zig—then you can end up with some pretty horrific throws into a waiting defender’s arms.

According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Armstrong’s two interceptions against Purdue came from receivers running the wrong routes. That’s certainly possible, and Armstrong is not solely to blame for his struggles. But if Nebraska is going to survive the three-game gauntlet before it (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa) and win the Big Ten West, Armstrong and his receivers must be on the same metaphorical page.

Mark Pelini and Ryne Reeve’s Snapping

Against Michigan State, the center-quarterback exchange problem was blamed on renegade clapping by Spartans defenders, mimicking Nebraska’s snap signal. But “clap-gate” doesn’t explain the ongoing problems with the exchange against Rutgers and Purdue. Botched snaps cost Nebraska points and set up opposing scores. Against Rutgers and Purdue, those mistakes did not make a difference in the final outcome. Against better opponents, like Nebraska will be facing to end the season, those mistakes almost certainly will make a bigger difference.

According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, the snap issues are “mystifying” and not showing up in practice. That might make fixing the problem in the bye week challenging, but it is an issue that simply must be solved if Nebraska wants to return from Madison with a victory.

Tim Beck’s Preparation

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck gets credit for being honest, sometimes to his own detriment. According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Beck said that he “confused” the offense by giving them too much to work on, rather than simplifying the message and making adjustments throughout the game.

Sound familiar? It’s the same mea culpa he gave after the Michigan State game to explain Nebraska’s sluggish offensive performance.

I remain a little skeptical that being over-prepared is the primary culprit for Nebraska’s offensive woes post Michigan State. Outside of Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance and a solid half of play from Tommy Armstrong against Northwestern, Nebraska’s offense has looked disjointed and out of rhythm since returning from East Lansing.

Nebraska fans certainly hope, though, that a simplification of preparation during the bye week will be the tonic for NU’s offensive struggles.

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

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